SINGAPORE – Anyone who has played sport knows that mothers make Merlin look like a mediocre wizard. You urgently require a tissue to sniff into after a loss? Shazam, here it is. Need a stern word of motivation? Hey presto, it arrives. Desperately want replacement goggles before a race? Out of thin air – or more likely a cavernous bag – it emerges.
Mothers of athletes have hit a billion practice balls and sat through a thousand defeats like Greek stoics. They could write best-selling books on what they see but, please understand, they’re short of time. Too busy laying down the law for the toughest guys on the planet.
As the story goes, Nadezhda Ulyanovna told her boxing sons, world heavyweight champions Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, you boys ain’t ever fighting each other in a ring. They didn’t. Mothers are best hugged and not messed with.
It’s best not to turn mothers of athletes into a gooey cliche. Sweet is a word you use at your own peril. Gloria Connors – mum of the feisty tennis star Jimmy – once told Sports Illustrated: “I told him to try and knock the ball down my throat, and he learnt to do this because he found out that if I had the chance I would knock it down his. Yes sir.”
Forget Mother’s Day. Just go to a Singapore stadium, pool, hall on Any Day and you will find a mother in the vicinity. Wherever in the world they are, they know mileage. When Wilma Rudolph – 100m Olympic champion in 1960 – needed treatment for her twisted leg as a child her mum took her to a hospital 80km away for therapy. By bus, twice a week, for two years.
“My doctor told me I would never walk again,” she wrote later. “My mother told me I would.” We get it. Doctors only have degrees. Mothers have a sixth sense. Of course, they don’t always get it right because it’s been scientifically proven they are actually human.
Mothers dot the sporting landscape and don’t just look for them in the stands because for centuries they’ve been out there on the field. From Serena Williams to Alex Morgan to Pearline Chan, they’re nappy-rash fighters and goalscorers, who put kids to bed and then rivals to sleep. What’s that again about women not deserving equal pay?
This is your everyday multi-tasking stuff: Raise a kid, chase a gold, fend off guilt (“Am I a good mother?”) placed on them by patriarchal societies and adapt to an altered body. Having a baby and playing may seem routine, but it’s the mother of all comebacks.
Chan, 42, the charming netballer and former national captain, remembers going for her first 5km run four months after having her first child by C-section in June 2009. She hadn’t planned to play on but was enticed by the idea of the 2011 World Netball Championship in Singapore.
“It was so painful, I felt I was dragging two of me. I used to be fit and agile but I’d put on 11-12kg and didn’t recognise my body. Everything ached and I wondered, ‘Why am I doing this. Should I stop’?” But a voice kept nagging her: “No, keep trying.” Six months after Tyler was born in June, Chan was playing for Singapore again.
Bodies need to recover but mothers and expectations are tough old pals. Five months after the birth of her second child, Eva, national runner Yvonne Chee timed 3hr 33min at the London Marathon. Impressive, right? Not for her. “I was disappointed,” she says. “I didn’t hit the time I targeted.” Four months later she ran her then-personal best of 3:13.
Tick-tock is the relentless music of the athletic mother, reminding so many of them that there are only 24 hours in a day into which – as Chee says – they must squeeze three lives: mother, employee, competitive athlete. Yup, it’s true, fatigue actually happens.
Still – with support from families – time is found and inventively used. One evening, years ago, when one of Jasmine Goh’s kids was unwell and she couldn’t step out for training, she simply ran in her kids’ room. Not on a treadmill but on the same spot for two hours.
Years later, Goh, a single mother, came fourth in the 2017 SEA Games marathon and in doing so demonstrated to her kids the very thing she told them: “If you want to excel, you have to pay a price.”
Athletes play for the thrill of the chase, the high of adrenaline, the sweat of camaraderie and yet, occasionally, they send a message. It’s what mothers in sneakers do and it’s what Chan the netballer has done.
By playing on she reinforced the truth that “it doesn’t end when you have a baby”, making her not just an exemplary player but an example. Maybe a young mother, unsure of the sporting road ahead, saw her and, as Chan says, thought: “Oh, there was a person who did it. Maybe I could try it, too.”
Mothers don’t get plaques, prizes or the day off today, but they get thank-yous which will make you weep. In 2010, figure skater Joannie Rochette arrived in Vancouver for the Winter Olympics. Her mother, Therese, had taken her to the rink as a kid, had shared her dream, had been her pal. Then two days before her event, her mum, 55, died of a heart attack.
Rochette didn’t pull out, she skated and in the midst of a gale of emotion she won bronze. Later at the funeral, in an act of grace and gratitude, she took out her medal.
And then placed it on the lid of her mother’s coffin.